Sermon for Palm Sunday
Zechariah 9:9-10 + Philippians 2:5-11 + Matthew 21:1-9
Palm Sunday is a day of great gladness for us in the Church. We wave our palm branches; we walk in our procession; we hear the Palm Sunday Gospel and we sing our hymns of praise that mimic the song of praise sung to Jesus by the people of Jerusalem long ago. It’s a day of great gladness for us, not because we don’t know what happened later on during that Holy Week, but because we do.
And more importantly, Jesus knew what would happen. Palm Sunday would be a really pathetic celebration otherwise. Poor Jesus! There He goes riding into Jerusalem to the praises of the crowds—but where would all these worshipers be on Friday? Poor Jesus! There He goes, thinking that Jerusalem actually loves Him, thinking that the holy city will be loyal to Him. Poor Jesus! If only He knew…
But that’s just it. He did know. He knew everything that would happen to Him during Holy Week, every gory detail, with the knowledge of the Son of God, with the infallible prophecies of the Sacred Scriptures. He knew about the donkeys, where they would be, and about their owner, how he would readily give them up for the Lord’s service. He knew how this ride would go, how the crowds would receive Him. And what He must do. He knew the humiliation that awaited Him, and the encounters with His enemies and the conflicts with the Jewish leaders and the betrayal by His friend and the abandonment of all His friends and how the Jews would call out “Crucify!” He knew and still went through with it, still rode into Jerusalem happy to meet His people, happy to be greeted by His people. Jesus was greatly humbled during Holy Week, absolutely and completely humiliated. But no man and no devil brought Jesus down. We see it already today in our Gospel. Christ chooses the lowest. Therefore we sing, Hosanna in the Highest!
There they are—Jesus and His disciples at the Mount of Olives, just across the valley from the city of Jerusalem, high up on a hill. It’s time for the Passover. They have to be in Jerusalem for the feast. But they can’t just walk up to the gates, not this time. There is a prophecy that needs to be fulfilled, written by the Prophet Zechariah. The Christ, the true Son of David, the King of Israel had to come into Jerusalem, Mt. Zion, riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He had never entered Jerusalem that way before, as far as we know, but then, Jesus knew that this time was different. This is the time when He comes “just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey.” This is the time when He comes, not just with His usual lowliness—Jesus was never pretentious, never wealthy, never politically powerful—, but this time He comes to lower Himself as low as a man can go, to be stripped of every bit of dignity, stripped of all His friends, stripped of His reputation, stripped of His legal rights, stripped of His safety, stripped of His life. Jesus was brought so low that not a single man or woman on earth can ever claim to be lower than Jesus became. But while you or I may be brought low by other people or by God Himself against our will, while you or I may be tricked into being humiliated or walk unknowingly into a trap, Jesus does this amazing thing of choosing to be made low.
He didn’t have to. As Paul said in the Epistle, “Being in the form of God, He did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.” In other words, for you or me to want to be equal with God or treated like God or to walk around like we are God—that would be robbery, trying to take something that doesn’t belong to us, trying to forcibly remove God from His throne. God is high. We are low. That’s the way it is.
But the Son of God had every right to be treated like God, and yet He chose lowliness instead. He had the right to remain outside of His creation, to remain “unincarnate.” But that was too high for Jesus. He chose to be incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and to be made man. Then, He had the right, as the God-Man, to be worshiped and honored by His whole creation, to wealth and riches and glory and fame. But that was too high for Jesus. He chose to live instead as a poor man, with no house or home or luxury. Then, He still had the right to be treated justly and fairly by society; He had the right to be loved by His neighbor, even as He loved His neighbor perfectly; He had the right, under God’s Law, to live forever and never die. But even that was too high for Jesus. He chose the lowest.
He chose it, because He knew what His people needed, and what you and I need, too. Better than we do. We think we need an earthly king, someone to make this world a happier place, a kinder and gentler place with more justice and less crime. We think we need a Jesus who will praise us and make us feel good and tell us what a good job we’re doing of living according to His commandments, how, unlike some people, we are really holding up our end of the divine bargain. We think we need some nice gentle words of affirmation, to tell us that, even though we’re not perfect, we’re not really so bad after all and that God loves us because He sees that deep down we’re really decent people.
But that’s not what God finds when He examines any human being according to the holiness of His law. He doesn’t find good people. He finds sinners who fall short of His glory, not sometimes, not here and there, but everywhere and all the time.
What we really need is for God to humble Himself. What we really need is a King who is willing to go to battle for us all by Himself. What we really need is for God to lower Himself all the way down to our human level, to subject Himself to hatred, to become a servant, a slave, so that the slaves can go free. What we really need is for God to become obedient in our place, obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
But Jesus knew that. It’s why He told His disciples to go fetch Him that donkey and her colt, so that He could ride into Jerusalem and meet His sinful people there, and finish what He had started at His conception and His birth, to finish His obedience in our place, to finish earning the forgiveness of sins and righteousness for the whole world of sinners, to finish lowering Himself, for us.
As we sang in the hymn, “Yea, Father, yea, most willingly I’ll bear what Thou commandest; My will conforms to Thy decree, I do what Thou demandest.”
It’s the news of the willingness and the kindness and compassion of Jesus, our humble King; the news of His purposeful decision to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey and to choose the lowest place for us that makes you believe in Him, that brings you to faith in Him. And it’s through faith in Him that God forgives you your sins and gives you all the good things that Jesus earned for us all. Without faith in Jesus, a person is on his own and will find out what God’s wrath feels like. With faith in Jesus, there is no more wrath—only mercy and grace and eternal life.
Here in the Gospel, we witness Jesus choosing the lowest, and as this Gospel kindles faith in us, we want to join the crowds in their song, “Hosanna in the Highest!”
Again we see the mercy and kindness of Jesus in accepting that worship from these people. Just as He knew what He would face over the next few days, He knew that these people’s faith was weak and frail and faltering and fickle, that for some of them, it wouldn’t last the week. But for the moment, it’s still faith. It’s still trust in Jesus and a clinging to Jesus as the Savior. Jesus doesn’t choose the highest ranking, most important people in this world. He chooses the lowest, and so Jesus welcomed the songs and the worship of this lowly crowd who believed in Him, and refused to silence them when the Pharisees complained.
Now what exactly does faith offer to Jesus? Is it like, “Here I am. I give you my heart, Jesus!” Whenever someone talks about giving their heart to Jesus, I always ask, “What would He want with that dirty old thing?” Faith isn’t “giving your heart to Jesus” or “giving your life to Jesus” or giving anything to Jesus. Faith is receiving things from Jesus. What did the people sing to Him? Hosanna! Save us now! Blessed is He who comes…Hosanna in the highest!” You see, their song is not a song of giving, but a song of longing to receive salvation and help from Jesus, the blessed One. Faith is the confession of the heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to look to Him for every good thing, and faith receives every good thing from Him, like the crowds of Jerusalem did, with thanksgiving!
You remember the Greek word for “thanksgiving”? Eucharist! It’s no coincidence that we sing the song of Palm Sunday before every Eucharist, before every Holy Communion. Hosanna! Blessed is He…Hosanna in the highest! Because in the Holy Supper we gather, not to “give” our works to Jesus but to give thanks for His works and His benefits being given to us in His body and blood. This is the worship of faith, to trust in Him, to call on His name alone for salvation, to come to Him to receive His gifts. We sing to Him, “Hosanna in the highest!” because He chose the lowest in giving His body and blood into death, and even now He chooses to give us the highest possible gifts in the lowest possible form, in a meal that looks lowly, but in reality, like Jesus, it isn’t lowly at all.
It isn’t lowly, because Jesus isn’t lowly anymore. You heard the Apostle Paul speak of His exaltation in the Epistle. That God has now exalted Him to the highest place and given Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. This is one whose name you confess and sing today. This is the one whose lowliness you praise, and whose humility you are called to imitate every day.
Today is a day of great gladness in the Church as we acknowledge the tender mercies of our humble King. Christ chooses the lowest. So let us join our song to the song of the daughter of Zion. Hosanna in the highest! Amen.